Ladbroke - 9/10 July 1943
The assault on Sicily (Operation 'Husky') was the natural follow-up to the campaign in North Africa.
'Ladbroke' was the first, and larger, of the two landings in Sicily. It involved troops from the British 1st Airborne Division being landed close to the Ponte Grande bridge which they were to capture and hold.
Preparations for the operation were rushed. In May, pilots were required to build the CG-4A (Hadrian) gliders at La Senia airfield in Oran. In ten days they built fifty-two and these were then flown to Froha and Thiersville. A further three hundred and forty-six gliders were built by American maintenance teams. Within three days of being delivered (16 June), most of the gliders had been grounded for repairs. By the end of the month, tail-brace weakness meant that all the gliders were grounded.
At Froha, during the first three weeks of June, over 1800 tows were made to give the American tug pilots experience which they did not previously have. On the glider side of the operation, American pilots with less flying experience than their British counterparts, were given the task of conversion training on Hadrians.
All the Hadrians were towed to five airstrips near Sousse and Kairouan, on the Tunisian coast, from where the operation would begin. They joined nine Horsas which had been ferried in on Operation 'Turkey Buzzard'.
Disaster struck on the night of 6 July when the divisional ammunition dump, situated next to the tented camp, blew up. Amazingly no-one was injured, but a great deal of equipment was lost. The men of the Quartermaster's depot, as only they know how, managed to sort everything out in time for the 'off'.
On the night of the operation a gale was blowing. In fact it had been blowing all day. Nevertheless, the tug/glider combinations took off on time. They had a 450 mile (725 km) flight ahead of them at an altitude of no more than 100 feet (30 m). In the poor weather conditions the glider pilots had to fight hard to keep station on their tug aircraft.
S/Sgt Jack Caslaw recalls:
'A message came from our tug - 'This is it, good luck fellas.' The four Dakotas cast off their charges and I took over...Then I saw we were going to ditch...I held her off, and off, until the tail contacted a wave top, and she just swashed down into the water; no-one even lost their footing.'
Jack, his second pilot Sgt 'Andy' Anderson and their passengers were picked up by a British destroyer early the next morning.
US Glider Pilot Flight Officer Sam Fine, one of thirty volunteers as co-pilots in British gliders, was second pilot to S/Sgt 'Lofty' Wickner:
'As we flew along the coast of Sicily it was lit up with search-lights and anti-aircraft fire...I released and pulled the stick back...made a left turn and headed to shore through the search-light and anti-aircraft fire...I made a very nice touch down but was rolling too fast. As there was a stone wall ahead of me, I turned the glider to the left and hooked the left wing onto a tree. That stopped us very nicely...A shot rang out (and) I was knocked out of my seat.'
All the glider's occupants got away and quickly joined up with another group of airborne soldiers. Sam Fine's group marched to the bridge.
S/Sgt Dennis Galpin was carrying 15 Platoon, 2nd Battalion South Staffs under command of Lt L Withers. As with F/O Fine's glider, this one also attracted searchlights and anti-aircraft fire.
Having evaded this fire, by flying out over the sea, Galpin decided to head straight for the bridge at low-level. The searchlight followed his glider and kindly illuminated the LZ.
The bridge was captured quite quickly and, by dawn, the small force of defenders had been joined by other airborne troops and glider pilots. Here they waited for the inevitable Italian counter-attack.
Around 1000 hours a battalion of enemy infantry, supported with artillery and mortars, arrived at the bridge. A ferocious battle ensued, but the Italians were unable to dislodge the British troops who suffered horrendous casualties. Eventually, though, the survivors were left with no option but to surrender. They were taken prisoner but were not held captive for long. The British ground force swept in and released them. Sam Fine's wounds were seen to at a field hospital. Sadly, 'Lofty' Wickner did not survive the fight at the Bridge.
Three hundred other British Airborne troops had perished in the sea of Sicily. Gen John Hackett explains:
"The operation was a disaster. US Troop Carrier Command tug pilots, flying C-47s with no crew protection and no self-sealing tanks, with virtually no military experience, were panic-stricken at their first encounter with flak and cast off their Horsa gliders over the sea at night, facing high wind, too far out for most to make landfall."